Anatomie artificielle. Marie Marguerite BIHERON.
Anatomie artificielle.
A female anatomist’s odorless cadavers

Anatomie artificielle. Paris: de l’imprimerie de P. Al. Le Prieur, [1761].

8vo (189 x 118 mm). 4 pages. Caption title; woodcut headpiece and initial (very light foxing). Modern marbled boards, red morocco title label on spine. ***

A rare prospectus advertising an exhibition of anatomical models made by the important female anatomist and wax modeller (céroplasticien) Marie-Marguerite Biheron.

In the pamphlet the advantages of Biheron’s models are contrasted with those of the celebrated surgeon Guillaume Desnoues (1650-1735), who had created a collection of anatomical wax models. Desnoues’ “blocks of wax” did not look like skin, they turned yellow, and the internal organs would break at the slightest accident or would crack from dryness. But Mlle Biheron’s models were covered with “real skin,” which not only looked lifelike but protected the models from breakage during moving. The natural membranes were copied accurately, “to the point of deceiving spectators” (into thinking they were seeing the real thing); the “hollow viscera, such as the stomach and the intestines, were produced with the consistency, flexibility, and lightness of real organs. One can blow out the stomach, and even the lungs.” All in all, in their natural proportions, relative sizes, colors and exact positions, Nature is copied to perfection... Starting on May 13, visitors are invited to come view this Anatomie every day except Sunday, from 11 am to 1 pm, and 4 to 6 pm, at the home of the Demoiselle Biheron, on the Vieille Estrapade, on the corner of the Rue des Poules.

The prospectus’s descriptions of Biheron’s models were not exaggerated. Celebrated as a learned anatomist and exceptional artist, she attracted many paying visitors to her collection. Anatomical cabinets were all the rage in science-obsessed eighteenth-century France, and well-off women often had their own collections of naturalia, shells, minerals, etc.; thus the fact that a woman had a curiosity cabinet, which happened to be anatomical, was not shocking, and in fact may have contributed to her peers’ fascination with her work. However, unlike other often wealthy, aristocratic female amateurs, Biheron was a serious anatomist, who had developed a secret method of producing astonishingly realistic, life-size anatomical models, made of wax and other materials.

A single woman from a middle-class family of apothecaries, Biheron was one of the very few pre-20th-century women of science century to support herself from her profession. She had had the anatomical bug from a young age, and she pursued her own training (apparently against her family’s wishes). After studying drawing and art with Madeleine Françoise Basseporte, a talented botanical artist who served as the official artist of the Jardin du roi, and who became a life-long friend, Biheron spent four years attending anatomy lectures at the Jardin des plantes. She developed her own technique for producing extraordinary realistic, resilient and accurate anatomical models, as well as individual models of external and internal parts and organs, using materials such as silk, wool, thread and feathers, which were apparently coated with wax. The only thing missing from these lifelike models was, contemporaries commented, the stink — and this was of course the great appeal, for the curious general public, surgeons, and medical professors alike, of using man-made anatomical models instead of cadavers.

Biheron’s profound knowledge of anatomy (she knew all the Greek and Latin terms!) and her artistic and pedagogical skills were praised by her friend and supporter Denis Diderot, by Benjamin Franklin, Buffon, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, and numerous other men of science, earning her renown in French academic circles and eventually throughout Europe. As a culminating honor, the surgeon Sauveur-François Morand presented her work to the Academy of Sciences in 1759 (the wording of his presentation, transcribed in the Extrait des registres de l’Académie Royale des Sciences du 23 juin 1759, was paraphrased in this prospectus). She returned to the Academy in 1770 to present her models of the gravid womb, and in 1771, she made “anatomical demonstrations in a private session organized at the academy in honor of the new King Gustav III of Sweden” (Dacome, p. 41). Specializing by necessity in female anatomy (although her models were of both male and female bodies), Biheron’s anatomical models aided obstetricians, and, encouraged by Diderot, whose daughter she taught, wealthy families sent their teenage daughters and sons to her to learn the true “facts of life” (an Enlightenment form of sex ed). Biheron’s studies of the uterus during pregnancy, complete with her anatomical models, appear to have influenced the obstetricians William Hewson and William Hunter, whose master work Anatomia uteri umani gravidi appeared in 1774, whom she met during a visit to London in 1771 (which had been facilitated by Ben Franklin).

That her accomplishments were extraordinary at a time when the medical profession was completely closed to women goes without saying. But, in spite of these successes, Biheron, like her teacher Basseporte, never achieved prosperity. Failing to gain royal patronage, she tried to sell her collection of models. Several attempts by her friends and supporters to interest foreign amateurs, monarchs (including Catherine the Great), and scientific institutions failed. In the last decade of her life, Biheron gained the attention of Marie-Antoinette, and eventually the King, and plans were made to acquire the cabinet for Versailles, for the education of the royal children. But the Revolution intervened. Later the new Republic made a few moves to acquire the collection, but these came to naught. The 129 anatomical models inventoried after her death (based in part on a description by Vicq d’Azyr) were dispersed in 1797 by her heirs, and apparently none survive.

I locate 2 other copies of the pamphlet (BnF and library of the University of Paris, Santé Médecine).

Cf. Georges Boulinier, “Une femme anatomiste au siècle des Lumières: Marie Marguerite Biheron (1719-1795),” Histoire des sciences médicales 35, no. 4 (2001); Adeline Gargam, “Marie-Marguerite Biheron et son cabinet d’anatomie: une femme de science et une pédagogue,” in Femmes éducatrices au siècle des Lumières (2007); Lucia Dacome, “Intimate Connections: Marie Marguerite Biheron and Her `Little Boudoir’,” online preprint of an article to be published in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 95, no. 3 (Fall 2021).
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